Paul Pillar

A Message to the Israeli People About Iran

Benjamin Netanyahu will not support any agreement between the United States and Iran. Or to be more precise, he will not support any agreement that is at all reasonable and in both U.S. and Iranian interests and thus has any chance of being negotiated. Give Netanyahu credit for consistency: he has long made it abundantly clear that he has no use at all for any negotiations with Iran or for any settlement of differences with Iran, on the nuclear issue or on anything else.

Netanyahu thus is doing what he can to destroy the prospects for an agreement. This includes his usual scare-mongering as well as rhetorical tactics such as trying to equate Iran to North Korea. He has depicted Iranian President Rouhani as representing nothing new and ordered a boycott of Rouhani's speech at the United Nations before he heard a word of what the Iranian said. In particular, Netanyahu is making demands that he knows would be deal-killers and suggesting that anyone who does not agree with those demands is endangering the security of Israel. Perhaps if a fantasy agreement somehow were reached in which the government of Iran declares that it has been evil and mistaken all these years, agrees to demolish all facilities having anything to do with its nuclear program, invites teams from the Israeli Defense Forces into Iran to perform the demolition, and has President Rouhani agreeing to use his Twitter account not only to convey Rosh Hashanah greetings but also to recite lyrics from Hatikvah, then Netanyahu would announce his support for the agreement.

To understand Netanyahu's posture one needs to realize that it is not only, or maybe even primarily, about a possible Iranian nuclear weapon. It is partly a matter of heading off any rapprochement between Iran and the United States, which would weaken the Israeli claim to being America's sole reliable and important partner in the Middle East. It is partly a matter of sustaining the Iranian nuclear issue as the regularly invoked “real problem” in the region that serves to divert attention from matters the Israeli government would rather not talk about or be the subject of international scrutiny. And it is partly a matter of Netanyahu riding a topic he has made a signature issue of his own in Israeli domestic politics and a basis for his claim to tough-guy leadership.

It is pointless to talk about how an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 could be fashioned to win Netanyahu's acceptance, because such acceptance will not be forthcoming. Anyone interested in the peaceful resolution of differences with Iran needs instead to view Netanyahu—and the Israeli Right of which he is a part, and those in the United States who unthinkingly and automatically follow his lead—as irredeemable spoilers and to think about how their efforts at spoiling can be countered.

One way to counter them is to talk directly to Netanyahu's bosses: the Israeli people. Ordinary Israelis, most of whom have not performed strategic analysis about what an Iranian nuclear weapon would or would not mean and instead approach the subject on a more emotional level, have genuine and understandable concerns about such a weapon if one were to materialize. They would have understandable concerns even without their leadership incessantly stoking fears about the subject. The Israeli people need to be spoken to about what is the best way to achieve their objective of avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon. They need to have explained to them why a negotiated agreement with Iran is that way, and why their prime minister's way is not. This will not cause the prime minister to end his efforts at spoiling, but it might energize other voices in Israel and help to make the spoiler-in-chief's efforts less credible, reduce any Israeli backing for Netanyahu taking the ultimate spoiling step of launching his own military attack on Iran, and lead those in the United States who really care about Israeli security to think again about falling in line behind Netanyahu.

This is certainly not the only important issue on which Netanyahu's government is acting contrary to the interests of Israel and its citizens. It would be great to hear more plain speaking by American leaders on those other issues, and on how Israelis are not being well-served by their own leaders. Unfortunately we have not heard much of that, but the Iranian nuclear issue is as good a one as any on which to start. Ideally Israelis would hear such a message from the very top of American leadership.

The Israeli government has complained about a paucity of trips to Israel by President Obama. So it could hardly stand in the way of a trip even if it knew it was for this purpose. Netanyahu's government also could hardly deny him the privilege of addressing the Knesset for this purpose. The government let it be known it was unhappy Obama did not address the Knesset on his last trip to Israel. And of course Netanyahu has been given the privilege of performing before the U.S. Congress, with members repeatedly jumping up and down out of their seats as if they had ants in their pants.

More calculation would have to be devoted to the timing of delivering such a message, relative to where negotiations with the Iranians stood. But were such a public message to be delivered, it ought to contain passages similar to these:

My friends, the people of Israel--

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